Leading Article: The Basra endgame and the trading of blame

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The Independent Online

The unseemly blame game over who lost Iraq – so reminiscent of those earlier anguished debates over who "lost" China, or Vietnam – has broken out in full. We must now expect more of the finger- pointing that General Sir Mike Jackson and retired Maj Gen Tim Cross have now begun, and which will no doubt prompt sharp retorts and counter-accusations from the other side of the Atlantic.

Few now seriously question the substance of the two generals' complaints, which is that the failure of the coalition to engage in "nation-building", meaning reconstruction, immediately after the invasion, opened the way for most of the horrors that have since ensued and which have now laid waste to much of the ancient land of Mesopotamia.

Their observations, in that limited sense, therefore are almost uncontroversial. What is wholly unprecedented is that they should have spoken out in this way in public. No matter the stresses and strains to which the Anglo-American alliance was subjected in recent decades, especially over the Balkans in the 1990s when there were countless off-the record briefings by one side against the other, it is hard to recall a time since the Second World War when differences between London and Washington have been aired in so open a fashion.

Along with devastating a country, the bungled invasion of Iraq appears to have done lasting damage to the so-called Special Relationship with the United States as well.

But while endorsing the thrust of the generals' criticism of Washington's post-war strategy in Iraq, or lack of one, we must be cautious about endorsing the apparent conclusion that just because the Americans got it wrong in Iraq, we might have got it right.

It is convenient now for the British, as we scuttle out in crablike fashion from Basra, to loudly claim that had our wise advice been heeded at the start, matters might have proceeded differently. Reliable information to substantiate this claim is not yet at hand.

It will be for historians to show whether or not we even possessed – let alone vainly pressed onto the Americans – a costed and worked out alternative strategy for the occupation of Iraq. At present, all we have is British assertions that Donald Rumsfeld was "warned" back in 2003 of what might go wrong and did nothing about it.

It is a point of some significance that the British have not presided over a level of reconstruction in our patch in the south around Basra that is significantly more impressive to what has gone on further north in the American zone. Some Americans might note that this is a telling failure, when the British cannot claim to have been distracted from this task by the kind of Sunni-Shia sectarian feuding that has perforce preoccupied the Americans.

The sad reality is that neither we nor the Americans will be leaving Iraq with much credit and attempts by either side to pass the buck are almost pointless. Worse, these futile quarrels are in danger of distracting attention from the real question; what in this terrible situation, mostly of our own making, can we now do for the suffering people of Iraq?

At this stage, with little more than a toehold at Basra airport, possibly not much. We might, however, have the decency to give the Iraqis a firm date for our withdrawal from the south of Iraq instead of slowly vanishing from the scene much like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. That at least would be a decent ending to an otherwise ignominious episode.